New Study: Birth Control Pills Make Women Smarter!

Editor’s note: Though this piece was written with heaps of sarcasm, I’d like to add an amendment.  After hearing from the first commenter below, I want to note that these sorts of studies may be extremely productive and allow for progress on women’s reproductive health. There is no replacement for well-conducted research and solid evidence. 

From the marginally sexist study files of “women on the birth control pill find ‘macho men’ less attractive” or that the pill “makes women broody and able to detect cuteness more acutely” and the startling (!) discovery that “ovulation changes a woman’s behavior” comes a new study which concludes that women using oral contraceptives actually increase the size of certain parts of their brain. And until a newer study is released indicating this might not be true and that this too shall be filed away as another marginally sexist study, this will incite headlines. 

From The Daily Mail:

The study found that the contraceptive of choice of 3.5million British women  –  a quarter of all 16 to 49-year-olds  –  increases brain size by around 3 per cent.

The regions of the brain that increased in size included sections shown “to already be larger in women compared to men, like those involved in conversation.” Sadly, the pill won’t help us women improve our darn map reading and spatial skills. That’s still the domain of the male:

However, the contraceptive appeared to have little effect on areas more dominant in men, including those associated with spatial skills such as map reading.

In case you’re wondering, then, why on earth you’d start taking the pill to increase intellectual capacity if your female nature just won’t ever allow you to understand how to put together an Ikea table, don’t fret. The pill might improve your memory and verbal skills:

Dr Belinda Pletzer, of Salzburg University, said the sex hormones in the Pill were clearly having a ‘tremendous effect’ on the female brain. She added: ‘Larger volumes of a brain area could lead to an improvement of the functions this area is responsible for.

‘Looking at the brain areas involved in our study, which are larger in Pill users compared to naturally-cycling women, this could concern several higher order brain functions, especially memory and verbal skills.

‘The behavioural changes due to contraceptive use are likely to affect those skills that are already better developed in women compared to men like, for example, memory.’

The research is not conclusive yet on whether these changes are maintained after a women stops taking the pill. I’m waiting on the edge of my seat.

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  • cpolis

    Could you clarify what you find sexist about this study?  Personally, I’m thankful that people invest time and money investigating the various physiological effects of hormonal contraception, given the benefits to women’s health and science in general that this kind of work can offer.*


    Saying: “until a newer study is released indicating this might not be true” sounds an awful lot like anti-science rhetoric that I’m used to hearing elsewhere — but surprised to see on RHReality Check!  I think scientists (most, anyway) try their hardest to see and report “The Truth,” but things aren’t always clear-cut or black and white, and sometimes new studies do provide knowledge that alters what was previously believed to be true.  It’s the nature of the beast.  Would it be better if folks just stopped trying to understand these kinds of complex issues altogether?


    From my read of the publication (I didn’t read the Daily Mail article because they misreport scientific evidence frequently), the author was not making a blanket statement that hormonal contraception makes you “smarter,” but that sex hormones (from both hormonal contraception and from changes during menstruation) appear to impact brain structure, and that brain structure is related to specific skills – such as memory, spatial navigation, and other factors.  They conclude simply that menstrual cycle phase and use of hormonal contraception should be controlled for when studying sex differences in human behavior, brain structure, or function.  Seems to me like they are just trying to improve the quality of future studies on these issues.



    * Disclaimer: I also do research on physiological effects of hormonal contraception, so perhaps I am biased and sympathetic towards scientists.  Also, I generally build the Ikea furniture my boyfriend and I purchase together. ;) 



  • amie-newman

    thanks for the comment! I did use the word “marginally” to qualify the term sexist because it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I’m lumping together a series of studies – on birth control or fertility cycles & women’s behavior – that have come to light over the last few months which provide us with odd or humorous results. You are correct that this may lead to a more significant breakthrough but I do remain skeptically hopeful :).

    I may have less faith in scientific studies than do you but I am far from anti-science. When I wrote that this information stands until a study comes out that may disprove these results, I am referring to the fact that frequently studies are released which turn out to be poorly designed, poorly implemented or simply make conclusions which end up being refuted by another study. I don’t think this makes me anti-science; it makes me cautious.

    And, honestly, I have poor spatial relations skills and excellent communications skills so maybe I am biased!

    Thanks for commenting, Chelsea. I have a lot of respect for researchers and scientists which may not have been entirely clear in this somewhat tongue-in-cheek post.

  • cpolis

    Your response and thoughts on this are greatly appreciated, Amie.  If you keep doing the hard work of communicating essential reproductive health information to the world, I’d be glad to build Ikea tables, or supply statistical tables, whenever useful. ;)